Word on the Street

Recently we got to talking about street scenes common when we were kids, and friend and neighbor Roger Brown told me about trucks like this:

In my neighborhood just north of Chicago we never had a grocery truck, though I am sure it would have done well. Or would do well – more about that shortly.

But when I was a child we did have a number of street-borne retailers, and we reveled when we saw and heard these guys:

Of course the ice cream guy was number one on the summer list, and in our neighborhood the truck played calliope-like music as it crawled up and down the local streets, so we certainly knew who and what was coming. Amy’s ice cream guy here in Rochester was Skippy. We all had them, most often local folks, not a Good Humor truck (though we did occasionally see them too).

But we also had other guys, and we really perked up upon their approach. For some reason the sharpener’s name seems like it was Sam. Maybe I am just hallucinating.

Rarely, but sometimes, the junkman.

And always, the milkman. Mostly because we could snitch ice from the back of his truck.

These were good memories, and I enjoyed revisiting them as we shared our recollections of the old days on our streets.

And then today I saw this, from Bloomberg’s CityLab site:


Chicago Must Revive the Not-So-Magnificent Mile to Thrive Again

Vacant retail space has soared, depriving the city of much-needed tax revenue. 

The vacancy rate on The Magnificent Mile is over 20 percent, and sales taxes have dropped from somewhere around $150 million to only about $60 million. Serious. Macy’s on Michigan Avenue is gone now, leaving a 170,000 square foot hole in Water Tower Place. And if we look around the country, vacancy rates and missing main-line retailers are hurting lots of cities (5th Avenue is about 15 percent vacant at the moment).

Meanwhile Amazon is taking over the world. In fact Amazon is going out of this world: Bezos is headed into actual orbit shortly. In our household, we don’t buy much of anything online, and we actively boycott Amazon (Big deal, right? It’s not much, but we mean it). Example: (cooked up when I got desperate because of Amy’s proper and essential ban on Amazon) if I want to add music to my collection, I head over to the Record Archive here in Rochester (great place – take a look). Less cost, local, and based in recycling. And fun to browse.

Right now, online shopping accounts for 21.3 percent of all retail sales, according to Digital Commerce. And it’s rising fast, fueled by COVID-19 and changing retail habits.

All of this is well known, often reported, much discussed, and the subject of unending hand-wringing in all kinds of government offices as taxes dry up. So let’s recap.

We are nearing the end (perhaps) of a calamitous pandemic. The time we have spent huddled at home to avoid risking the virus has changed so much of contemporary life: the way we work, how we feed ourselves, where we shop certainly, and what we do in our leisure time – everything is shifting. We are increasingly aware that a local life, less dependent on moving outside of our controllable and controlled territory, is safer, and for an abundance of other good reasons which are finally starting to dawn on us, preferable.

This comes at a time when we are descending into a climate and environmental catastrophe of incalculable proportion. Perhaps the pandemic is simply a prologue to the real exertions yet to come: finding a way for human life to survive, and to thrive, in a world we have made nearly uninhabitable.

Certainly I never expected to find the idea of completely local “15-minute” neighborhood urbanism taking hold and gaining real emotional and political traction, but when the Mayors of Paris, Madrid and Melbourne all make the local a matter of municipal policy, I guess we need to take note. Hosannah.

As I reflected on what we might do here to further the cause, and in light of the conversation Roger and I had the other day, I hit on what I think is a winning idea. Check this out.

First, we get our locally based supermarket chain to start circulating a fleet of grocery trucks to some of our urban villages. While they may not be quite ready for it yet, their history, and Shorty’s truck, should show the way.

Wegmans looked like this in the 1930s – perhaps a map to the future:

If we prefer, we can get the things we need for our tables at places like this:

Or this:

For the greens and produce, there is this:

Or this one:

Before dinner there is always the Pub Truck:

And after dinner maybe a little entertainment:

Shopping for shoes? no problem:

Time for a trim or a wash? Got it:

Or if you should be lucky enough to live in a city with streetcars, you can always remember Helsinki, and their famed Pub Tram.

I think we have this local thing totally under control. We can stay off the internet, boycott Amazon, and stay local in our 15-minute neighborhood. Hoorah!


2 thoughts on “Word on the Street

  1. I remember the bread van- horse and cart- and we would talk the man into giving us warm fresh bread!
    I also have a huge dislike for Amazon- but again- sometimes impossible – I was shocked by ‘Nomadland’ and the dystopian environment of the packing rooms. We live in a privileged bubble.
    I also love shopping fresh and locally and like to try on clothes in a store.

  2. Stephen: you were LUCKY to have had the bread man!

    I can’t tell about touching and trying on as a buying strategy. I think the young ones just go ahead and buy online, then touch and try on when the goods arrive, and send back as they think necessary. Which is incredibly wasteful, of course, and makes the fundamental and urgent matters of our moment MUCH worse. Returning merchandise purchased online should have a giant tack-on cost – that would slow the waste a little.

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